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London 2012: The Russians are coming

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Russia's school of Olympic champions

Matthew Pinsent
Matthew Pinsent
BBC News in Ekaterinburg

Russia is emerging from a period in which its Olympic dream has been at best on hold and at worst out of reach.

At the Beijing Olympics, Russia finished third in the medals table and in terms of honours won, a gulf away from the Chinese and Americans. For the last few days of the Games, Russia was locked in a battle with Britain that they only narrowly won.

Worse was to follow. Russia's nadir was reached at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, where they won just three gold medals.

The totem of Russian sporting success, the ice hockey team, was symbolically defeated 7-3 by hosts Canada in the quarter-final. It was a humiliation that prompted head coach Vyacheslav Bykov to sardonically imagine the reaction from Russian reporters.

"Let's put guillotines and scaffolds up on Red Square. We have 35 people in the squad - let's finish them all off," he told journalists.

During the Cold War the western world was always wary of the Soviet Union. "The Russians are coming!" became a kind of bogeyman slogan.

In a country that has traditionally and deliberately blurred the lines between sport and politics, Leonid Tyagachyov - the President of Russia's Olympic Committee - resigned following President Medvedev's very public demand for heads to roll.

Finishing third in the medals table of an Olympic Games would not be deemed a disaster by most nations but Russians still remember the sporting dominance of 'their' country.

The USSR won more medals than any other country at all but four of the summer and winter Olympics it competed in between 1952 and 1988 - collecting some 1204 medals at 18 Games.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of champions to newly-independent republics, Russians shouldn't be surprised that they subsequently struggled to dominate medal tables. Nevertheless, Russians still eye American and Chinese success with envy.

So, where did it all go wrong? And with London 2012 around the corner and Russia due to host the next Winter Olympics at Sochi in 2014, are things improving?

Financial meltdown of the 90s

Many have attributed part of the USSR's sporting success to the establishment of special schools that identified talented youngsters at an early age and trained them to become world champions.

Under the communist regime, when medals were the currency of political propaganda, the state invested heavily in these schools. It's a system that China has copied to great effect.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the new Russia experienced an economic meltdown that seriously undermined its bank of Olympic champions. Funding for training was cut and the best coaches and athletes fled as economic migrants to the west.

One man that embodied the Soviet superman to me was the rower Yuri Pimenov. I met up with him at the basin that hosted the rowing competition during the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

He laments Russia's lost generation of Olympic stars: "In the 1990s you have to acknowledge that we missed the chance to produce a lot of young sportsmen. The time for them to start out and begin to flourish was then. We lost a generation of young athletes who should be winning world championships and Olympic medals today."

Olympic medal hopeful Yulia Pidluzhny is a gradute of the Olympic School in Ekaterinburg
Olympic medal hopeful Yulia Pidluzhny graduted from the Olympic School in Ekaterinburg

Despite the dissolution of the USSR, the Olympic schools remain. I visited the Special School of the Olympic Reserve in Ekaterinburg to meet the next generation of Russia's Olympic hopefuls and alma mater of the high jumper I've been tracking for the World Olympic Dreams project, Ivan Ukhov.

What struck me when I entered the school was its honours board. Sergey Tchepikov tops the list - he competed at six Winter Olympics and won two golds, three silvers and a bronze in biathlon. The list of Olympic medallists fills a whole wall.

It's a roll of honour that most countries, let alone schools, would be proud of.

And it is clear to see and hear how the young athletes are put through their paces. Days start early with runs before dawn, there are the usual array of academic studies with a slight emphasis at sports science and then most of the afternoon is practice and training.

The group of wrestlers that I followed were boarders too. Whilst it was tough it wasn't cruel. Everyone knew what made champions and were willing to push themselves to achieve it.

"If I don't do well in a competition, I analyse what went wrong. I tell myself I still have everything to fight for. And my coach shouts at me. That doesn't feel too good so I train harder," said 15-year-old wrestler Alen Mikoyan.

If these schools still exist, why has Russia's dominance diminished? Anatoly Seleznyova, coach and father of Evgeniya Seleznyova - a current junior European diving champion - explains that talented youngsters are no longer admitted as six-year-olds but when they reach their mid-teens.

"The Soviet system was much better," he tells me. "We used to have sports boarding schools for kids from year four. We don't do that any more. The Chinese saw our model and copied it. Now look where they are. Even the Brits are getting better than us now!"

Sochi 2014 and beyond

Sochi is where the Russians come to play. It is full of middle class families, flip-flopped and sunburnt - affordable and reassuring. Situated on the Black Sea's eastern coast, Sochi is the country's summer capital and now host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

As Russians become more affluent, change is everywhere. The infrastructure budget for the 2018 World Cup is set to run to hundreds of billions of dollars. "We cannot say whether it's $180 billion or $500 billion or whatever," bid chief executive Alexander Sorokin said earlier this year.

The budget of the Sochi Games is approximately $10.85bn although reports indicate it could spiral to $30bn by 2014.

Artist's impression of the Sochi 2014 Olympic stadium
An artist's impression of the Sochi 2014 Olympic stadium

In Sochi there will be an Olympic park like Sydney had or like we are constructing in east London - multiple venues within touching distance of each other, a new airport and major new transport networks including a road and a railway to reach the slopes in the mountains.

Sochi is reinventing itself as a ski resort par excellence. But that is not all - the stadium used for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2014 becomes a host venue for football in 2018 and the Winter Olympic Park in Sochi is having a Formula 1 Grand Prix track for the 2014 season.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, Sochi 2014 President and chief executive officer, sums up the changes which are both concrete and abstact, saying: "Sochi's aim is to be one of the most innovative and the best Games ever.

Pupils from Cornwall visit an Olympic school

"First of all, we aim to organise the greenest Games ever. Secondly, we are changing the attitude and mentality towards people with disabilities in our country.

"Also, maybe the most important aspect of the legacy is revitalising the volunteer movement in our country," he says.

The reinvestment in sport is beginning to show - Russia finished second in the medal table at the recent World Championships in Daegu.

During the Cold War the western world was always wary of the Soviet Union. "The Russians are coming!" became a kind of bogeyman slogan.

For the last decade at least the Russians have given little cause for concern but come London 2012, this statement should re-enter the Olympic phrasebook.


Matthew Pinsent is a four-time Olympic rowing champion. He presents World Olympic Dreams, a project following 26 stories of athletes aspiring to compete at the London Olympics in 2012. He was speaking with Paul Harris.



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see also
Renewed spirit for Russian jumper
23 Apr 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
Sochi 2014 builds on many fronts
14 Apr 11 |  Business
Russia's Olympic 'humiliation'
25 Feb 10 |  Ice hockey


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